After I arrived in the United States from studying abroad in Argentina, India, and China last semester, one frequent question I received was, “What was your most memorable experience?” Many amazing events occurred — I rode an elephant bareback in Indian, bicycled to Beijing’s Olympic construction, visited a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, and experienced locals’ hospitality in every city. However, one particular event stood out above all.
I was part of a 14 person group standing on the shoulder of the Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor (BMIC), an expressway built to alleviate traffic in the city’s Silicon Valley section. Loopholes were taken to advance the project. The area around the road now contains an illegal extension of the city with unregulated housing, commercial, and corporate establishments. We were studying the negative environmental and social impacts of its construction.
As Leo drew a map of Bangalore in the dirt, a security officer approached us. He was from Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises (NICE), the developer whose main office was located on the roadway’s other side. The man ordered us to leave because we were on a private roadway. Our professor responded that we had public access to the road and that we would leave shortly.
After we piled into our vehicles, Leo drove 300 feet before realizing that a group of 10 men had approached the passenger van with most of the students. The men weren’t letting the van leave, and when Leo reversed and stepped out of his car, they began heckling him. Again, Leo said that we had the right to be on the road and that we’d leave if they’d let us. They wouldn’t. Pushing and shoving broke out when Leo retrieved his camera from the car and snapped his first photo. Even the famous managing director of NICE appeared to watch the violence, which escalated after his appearance.
Watching the fight from outside and hoping to capture the commotion for the sake of evidence, I took photos and short video clips. A lanky man in green saw me and with a quick reach, tried snatching my camera. He nearly hit my face, but fortunately my friend grabbed his arms before he touched me. My female professor positioned herself between him and me because it would be unlawful for him to touch her.
We scurried into the van with the rest of the students, who were terrified, watching the entire scene unfold through the van’s windshield. Our driver wanted to ditch the scene, but we wouldn’t leave Leo by himself. While someone sat on the driver, another student stole his key and pretended to throw it out the window. At another point, we suddenly felt the van rocking and rolling backward. The group of nearly 40 men outside began pushing the vehicle into incoming traffic. Another professor heroically jumped into the van and yanked the emergency break.
Meanwhile, we students frantically called for help from every Bangalore contact we knew. We received a few interesting responses from our host families, such as “Get out of there as soon as possible!” and “The U.S. embassy? What can they do for you?”
The incident was somewhat surreal, and I felt somewhat disconnected from the situation. I just watched it all happen. I watched the men push Leo up against the van, throw him to the ground, and rip his shirt. I watched the students dialing and scribbling down telephone numbers. I watched the local police arrive and do nothing to stop the fight. I watched the local police’s second squad arrive, perhaps after the embassy contacted them. I watched the police arrest Leo and escort him to their vehicle. I watched my classmates prod our van driver to follow the police to the Thalaghattapura Police Station, where we spent the next four hours filing a police report. At the end of our day, news cameras and microphones greeted us outside of the police station.
I realized a few things from what I now refer to as “the showdown.” Politics — the art of getting things done — work differently in developing countries with weaker governments. Decisions are often made by down and dirty combat as opposed to courts. There are few protections for the weak and voiceless because of corruption among government officials. Money talks. Leo tells us that local police around the corridor were most likely paid by the developer. This development process lacked clarity of information. Even after the entire dilemma, I’m still unsure about the public or private status of the corridor. The media’s pervasive power was also seen, but its accuracy of the facts was not. One article contained the following humorous comment from NICE: “Villagers in the area whom [Leo] abused had beaten him up. We went there to rescue him.” Also worth noting is that even as a United States citizen and the protections that come with it, I am vulnerable in a foreign country.
We gave a final presentation of solutions to the problem of illegal land development. I reflected on the fact that anyone can make up perfect solutions, but their real life implementation, constrained to conditions like budget and corruption, is incredibly difficult. Even if I plan for an equitable and transparent development process by taking input from villagers, even if fair plans are drawn up, even if I color a portion of my map green to reserve it as open space, there is little way to ensure that any of my perfectly logical and technical solutions will be carried out accordingly according to plan. The problems that we address are complex, people-involved, and more difficult to find solutions for than anything presented in school or theory. But that’s how the real, big world is.